Sean Safford: “Careers, Status and World Cities”

Zorba with Sean Safford, Associate Professor of Economic and Sociology and Director of Sciences Po’s Master of Public Affairs

Paris.- Zorba’s first session in Paris took place on January 26 with a guest of honor and an interesting topic. Sean Safford, Associate Professor of Economic Sociology and Director of Sciences Po’s Master of Public Affairs, started off with some provoking questions: what makes a place a «world city»? And what role does status play in major career decisions, particularly where to locate? The main argument goes that major changes in the economy’s geography and how careers are defined come together in the concept of status. 

On one hand, geography of the economy is changing with globalization. After the industrial revolution, the production of consumer goods led to the emergence of the corporation and cities became linked to specific products, for examples Detroit or Munich were associated with cars. The disaggregation of the value chain has been a major change in the production model. Each part of the value chain is produced in a different place and it is not by chance. Low skill tasks are delocalized to countries with lower salaries. On the other side of the spectrum, some cities attract the higher value aspects of the production chain, attracting higher jobs. These are the “world cities”. The wider their reach, the more global they are. At the top of the list are always New York and London.

But what makes a “world city”? Some argue it’s the capacity to attract the “creative class”. If creativity and innovation are the main engine of wealth generation, what cities need to do is attract creative people. But is it? Sean advocates that it is rather complexity what makes a city global. Globalization has shown the interconnectivity of systems we thought of as independent –the recent crisis being a clear example. Success today is driven by the capacity of solving complex issues with creativity. A city is global if it has the capacity to pull all the different resources need to come up with new solutions to complex problems.

On the other hand, careers have completely changed in one generation. People change jobs on average every 5 years. It is no longer about joining a company and climbing the ladder up. It used to be that the more educated would last longer in one position, now it’s the opposite. Not only people change companies, but they change countries. The narrative an individual develops to justify career choices is important, and here is how status comes into play. People move looking for jobs that provide autonomy and creativity.

Status is a rank ordering and its importance lies in the fact that it provides information in the absence of a better source. Being affiliated to a specific university or organization can automatically send strong signals about one’s success or capacity. Cities play a similar role.

More by Sean Safford at

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